Protest coverage exemplifies battle for objectivity

karen.peterson@thenewstribune.comJuly 21, 2013 

Sometimes the facts are not as popular as the opinions.

That seemed to be the case Monday when we ran a front-page story about protests against the George Zimmerman not-guilty verdict in the death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. Reporting on the protests, some readers said, was akin to picking a side, a side they didn’t like.

“I was stunned to wake up this morning to the headline reading: ‘Tears Anger Nationwide After Verdict in Florida,’” a reader wrote me. “What about the jubilation felt by MOST of the country? How dare you attempt to manipulate people’s thoughts and feelings as to what you think they SHOULD feel with a headline like that.” Seventy-five percent of the nation agreed with the verdict, she said, although she didn’t say where she got that number. She went on to list her opinions supporting the verdict.

“You need to run a headline in Tuesday morning’s paper reading: ‘Nationwide Jubilation for Justice After Verdict in Florida,’” she wrote.

The problem was that the facts didn’t support her.

While opinions obviously lay on either side of the verdict, the demonstrations were by people who opposed it. The fact was, “lawmakers, members of the clergy and demonstrators who assembled in parks and squares on a hot July day described the verdict by the six-person jury as persistent racism.” A petition calling for civil rights charges against Zimmerman “received such a massive response that it crashed the NAACP website.”

Agree with them or not, the protests happened, and our story described them.

The story also explained Zimmerman’s defense in the case, the Florida law that allows civilians to stand their ground when they feel their lives are in danger and quoted Zimmerman’s brother saying that race was not a factor in the case.

Surely many people agreed with the verdict, but they weren’t out gathering in city parks in the same big numbers as those who disagreed with it. If they had been, we’d have run a story about it.

On the news pages, our job is to report what happened. To have hidden it would have been irresponsible.

That said, needlessly fanning the flames would have been irresponsible, as well.

When we heard that supporters of Trayvon Martin were gathering Wednesday night in Tacoma’s Wright Park, we reserved judgment on whether or not to write a story. If only a handful of people had shown up, we wouldn’t have written. But when 40 people showed up, we deemed it newsworthy. It’s the same standard we apply to any protest or demonstration.

Beyond reporting the facts, a newspaper plays a role in hosting a conversation about important matters of the day. That’s what editorial pages are for. Ours were filled all week with opinions about the verdict from columnists on both sides of the issue. We also ran letters to the editor from readers with very differing views. And our editorial board settled on its own opinion that while the facts led the jury to decide Zimmerman shot in self-defense, Zimmerman shouldn’t have pursued Martin in the first place.

Part of our problem, however, is that cable TV commentators and bloggers posing as journalists camp on either side of an issue like this. They convince some people that if our news story doesn’t line up with the cable TV agenda of their choice, we’re wrong.

Here’s how I responded to the reader who wrote me:

“The story reflects the nation’s outward reaction to the verdict.

“I’m not sure where the 75 percent figure comes from, and I don’t know what the percentages really are, but the Zimmerman supporters didn’t protest in the streets the same way the Martin supporters did. This story is reporting on those more public reactions.

“Many of your other comments would be appropriate for our opinion pages, but not the news side, where we’re trying to stick with what we actually see happening.

“This is a difficult case and a delicate story for us to follow. As you point out, feelings are strong on both sides of it. We will strive to keep the reporting fact-based, and we are having daily conversations on the matter. We appreciate that you’d take the time to tell us what you think.”

Thousands around the country shed tears and expressed anger publicly about the Zimmerman verdict. Reporters saw it, and we reported it.

We’re thankful for readers willing to challenge us when they think we’ve misstepped.

They keep us thinking about how all sides perceive an important issue, and we’d be wise to listen.

Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434 karen.peterson@thenewstribune.com

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